Untranslated Words in the Bible; A Rant

There are numerous words in our English Bible that aren’t translated, but transliterated. Sometimes that’s not a big deal, but there are some cases that it’s at best a theological cop-out and at worst purposeful deceit.


An example of transliteration, rather than translation, is rendered baptizo as baptize rather than dip, plunge, immerse, or drench.

With baptizo I understand. I once read a list of the various ways baptizo is used in Greek literature. It’s used even of a wave “baptizing” a beach. In almost every case, the object being “baptized” was completely soaked.

On the other hand, the Didache, a very early church manual. mentions that while immersing in a flowing river or stream was the preferred means of baptism, it’s acceptable to pour three times over the head as well. The Didache was written in Greek, so we English-speakers can’t accuse the writer of misunderstanding baptizo.

Others, though, I’m not okay with.


Angelos is used 186 times in the New Testament. 179 of those times, it’s rendered as “angel,” which means it’s transliterated, not translated.

The word means messenger, not angel. It’s stupid—there’s probably a better word I should be using—to render it angel. Worse, it’s not very honest to render it angel 179 times, then never let people know that in the few cases where it refers to an earthly messenger, rather than a heavenly one, you translated it as messenger.

For example, when the Scriptures talk about John the Baptist being sent as a messenger to prepare the way of the Lord, it uses the word angelos (Matt. 11:2; Mark 1:2; Luke 7:27). Jesus sent messengers into Samaria in Luke 9:52. The word there is also angelos (well, angeloi, the plural). John’s messengers, sent to ask Jesus whether he was really the one, are referred to with the same word (Luk. 7:24).

Hebrew’s worse. Malak is rendered angel 111 times, messenger 98 times, and ambassador 4 times.

Don’t you think we’d understand better if angelos and malak were actually translated? Gabriel’s not an angel, he’s a messenger. Yes, he’s a heavenly messenger, and a powerful being, but he’s a messenger. That’s what the word means.

Maybe Gabriel didn't look like we think he did …
(Jeremiah Briggs has this image for sale.)


I have a whole web page on this one. This one irritates me because I find it dishonest.

There are seraphim mentioned in Isaiah 6. They fly, and they cry out praises to God night and day. They have six wings.

There are seraphim mentioned in Numbers 21, too. They bit the children of Israel in the wilderness. They were poisonous, and the children of Israel died.

There, in Numbers, the translators, who can’t seem to figure out what the word seraph means in Isaiah, have no problems rendering it “snake” or “serpent.”

It’s funny, though, in Isaiah 14:29 and Isaiah 30:6, they don’t seem to have problems figuring out that seraph means snake or serpent, either. It’s only in Isaiah 6.

Maybe we just don’t like the idea of flying snakes in heaven.

I like it. I call them “dragons.”


This one really bugs me, too.

Diakonos is in the New Testament 31 times. It’s only rendered “deacon” three times; in 1 Tim. 3:8 and 3:12 and Php. 1:1.

That’s ridiculous religious terminology. Give me a break. Translate the word! It’s SERVANT, thank you … SERVANT!

The really ridiculous translation is when the word is used as a verb, diakoneo. That’s in the NT 37 times, and they transliterate it, sort of, just twice, both times in 1 Tim. 3.

You can’t really transliterate it, though. “Deacon” is not a verb. So, when they don’t want to correctly translate it, like they did the other 35 times it’s found in the NT, and they instead want to lie to you, deceive you, trick you, and get in the way of your following God, they have a problem.

So they got around it by turning the one word, diakonos, which simply means “serve,” into “USE THE OFFICE OF DEACON.”


That’s ridiculous.

In 1 Timothy 3, we should be reading about the fact that one has to qualify to be a servant in the house of God. It’s a position of honor, and those who serve well (not “use the office of deacon well”) obtain good standing and great boldness in the faith which is in Christ Jesus.

Grumble, grumble, grumble. Now I’m all irritated.

I hate dishonesty. Both goats and wolves mingle comfortably with God’s sheep because their “shepherds” are not honest, brave, trustworthy, properly taught, or really even shepherds at all. I want to run them all out so that God’s sheep, so few as they may be, can actually be the flock of God, shepherded by real shepherds raised up by Jesus Christ, the Chief Shepherd.

About Paul Pavao

I am married, the father of six, and currently the grandfather of two. I run a business, live in a Christian community, teach, and I am learning to disciple others better than I have ever been able to before. I believe God has gifted me to restore proper foundations to the Christian faith. In order to ensure that I do not become a heretic, I read the early church fathers from the second and third centuries. They were around when all the churches founded by the apostles were in unity. I also try to stay honest and open. I argue and discuss these foundational doctrines with others to make sure my teaching really lines up with Scripture. I am encouraged by the fact that the several missionaries and pastors that I know well and admire as holy men love the things I teach. I hope you will be encouraged too. I am indeed tearing up old foundations created by tradition in order to re-establish the foundations found in Scripture and lived on by the churches during their 300 years of unity.
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11 Responses to Untranslated Words in the Bible; A Rant

  1. Keith Martin says:

    Enjoyed your short list.
    I would add “sabbaton”Gk, “shabath” Heb. In both old and New Testament, this word is REST, but has been turned into a technical word meaning ‘7th day’. I note some translations (?) have ‘sabbath’, then add in italics the word rest.
    This is why so many miss that Jesus is our rest, not a day. The ones He said that to kept the day, but He said they were heavy laden.

    • Shammah says:

      Thank you for adding this. For the record, in the short time I had right now, I was unable to verify your translation as “rest.” I have heard that the Hebrew word for Sabbath means “seven” or “week.”

      Do you have a source for this translation? When I have time to do so, I’ll try to get my hands on a Liddel-Scott Lexicon or see if I can find their comments online.

  2. Monster says:

    Interesting note about “seraphim” in Isaiah 6: it’s transliterated in the Septuagint as well! Perhaps this is why it’s transliterated; it’s transliterated by tradition that predates Christ. I’m assuming translators think they don’t have a good reason to translate it if they see the LXX wasn’t translated either. Maybe humans just can’t handle the truth…

    • Shammah says:

      With all the notes about extremely minor alternative possible interpretations, at least a note is in order. We have a systematic habit if hiding embarrassing information from Christians. That’s a problem.

  3. Shammah says:

    One of the things I talk about on this blog a lot is the church. We are all in danger of being deceived and not knowing it, because J’s right, deceived people don’t know they’re deceived.

    Protection from deceit comes from our speaking to one another. “Exhort/encourage one another daily, while it’s called today, lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13).

    One of my strongest motivations for banding together with other brothers who are bold enough and close enough to one another to speak honestly to each other is that God has promised truth to the church, not the individual. Together, God will protect us from deceit if we are listening, obedient people.

  4. Shammah says:

    To J: Thanks for such a kind response.

    The issue for me is not who’s right and who’s wrong, but what will glorify Christ. The body of Christ needs help right now. Continuing the status quo is not an option. Things are bad enough that we need to look at ourselves and say, “Where are we missing it? Where are we being dishonest with ourselves?”

  5. J says:

    The tricky thing about deceit of course is that one who is deceived never knows that they are deceived. So, if what you say is true and I am deceived, and prefer to stick my head in the sand, then I am not aware. So I will pray, and I ask that you pray that God might have mercy on me and lead me to a greater revelation and understanding of the truth. That my heart would not be hardened and that I would in fact wake from my sleep.
    Thank you for being kind enough to be straight foward with me.


  6. Shammah says:


    Actually, you make my point perfectly. You give reasons that people might not like the imagery of serpents in heaven. With this you justify the immoral practice of changing the text and thus hiding its meaning from those one is translating for.

    It doesn’t matter what reasons we have for wishing that Isaiah 6 said something different than it does. It doesn’t. It says “serpents.”

    I have not found even one translation of the Bible that even adds a footnote telling us that the word “seraph” is found other times in Scripture and translated as serpent. The NASB has a note in that same passage telling us that the seraphim might have shaken the threshold of the temple, or it might be posts of the temple. That’s important enough for a footnote, but the real meaning of seraphim, which they have hidden, is not??

    I’m sorry, sir, but what I said is accurate. People, including yourself, need to wake up. There are thousands of things like this, and they add up to our wandering far away from Biblical Christianity.

    It’s not so much this one instance that’s the problem. The problem is what you have done in your comment. You justify sticking our head in the sand and living in wishful thinking. That habit eventually produces large deviations from the will of God.

    The fact is, the last paragraph of my post would be accurate even if the rest of the blog was false. That last paragraph is the product of our dishonesty.

    I’m not saying that you are a dishonest person, J, but I am saying that your comment here justifies dishonesty. The translators are the same way. I don’t think they’re malicious. I think they’re blinded by religious wishful thinking, just as you are. Your motives can be as pure and kind as you wish, but the result is that God’s sheep don’t have shepherds, and they are mingling with wolves and goats.

  7. J says:

    I also did not mention, that a reason the translators leave it as seraphim is b/c there is no word in the English language that we have to describe what they actually are. Similar to the situation Isaiah has, as he’s looking at them.

  8. J says:

    Mr. Shammah,

    Whenever you interpret a text, normally you want to assume that the writer of the text was at least as smart as you. For example, whenever people like to come upon ‘contradictions’ in the gospel narratives or wherever, they assume that no one before them has come upon it or they assume that the writers were complete idiots and would not know how to at the least keep a story straight. Naturally upon further investigation, some critical thinking, and some charity we find that there is no contradiction.

    When dealing with church history and books and writings of the past, surely you recognize that one ought to be as charitable as possible? To try your best to see them and their writings in a good light? Especially when we’re dealing with other people whom profess to be a part of His church?

    So why does it seem as if your post (here and on your other site) is just wholesale tossing every translation to the wind? Hundreds and hundreds of God-fearing regenerated men are apparently ‘wolves’, false shepherds, cowards, dishonest, not properly taught, etc. b/c they didn’t translate some words for you?


    Is it not possible these men had non-malicious reasons for what they did?

    To translate a word strictly based upon its root meaning is hardly ever the correct thing to do. It’s usage during that time, the context of the sentence, the passage, and the wider book itself is needed in order to understand its meaning. Not to mention where else it’s used and how it’s used there.

    The reason they didn’t translate seraphim in Isaiah 6 as serpents or dragons is because of the context of the passage itself. The creatures in Num. 21:6 have a completely different purpose than those found in Is. 6. One set bites people, while the other’s primary purpose for existence is to extol the holiness of God. One group can be stuck on a stick, the other group shake the walls when they speak, one group crawls on the ground, the other has six wings. Those in Is. 6 are clearly in a different class than any other beings made, for the simple fact that they can be so near to God in His refulgence and not be consumed. Clearly these are completely different creatures.

    Second, your desire to have them interpreted as dragons will not work, b/c the Hebrews have a word for dragons, it’s ‘tannin.’, found for example in Ps. 74:13 and Is. 51:9. Note that these are creatures that are presented as against God. They resurface again in Rev., when John picks up the imagery again and they are again seen as fighting against God. They do not serve him as those in Is. 6 do. Completely different creatures.

    Third, the reason people would have a problem with serpents in heaven attending to God in such a manner is the simple fact that serpents are associated with evil and shame in the Biblical narrative. The issue is not with the serpents themselves per se, but with what the serpents represent that they take issue with. If serpents had never been a part of the fall or used such in the Biblical narrative, people would not have a problem.

    The seraphim translated later on in Is. also demands we note the context. First off this is an oracle, it’s imagery, within ancient mythical folklore, flying fiery serpents were mythical creatures in other ancient writings during that time. So either the writer of Is. is using them literally, or just as a vehicle to portray or get a point across. However, in no way can these be the same creatures found in Is. 6, b/c again, they are completely different. These serpents are associated with the earth, they are not heavenly creatures, while those in Is. 6 are.

    Finally, we’re dealing with limits of the human language. God must condescend in order to reveal himself to us, and we are limited by our finite minds and language. Isaiah is doing the best he can to describe what he is seeing with what he’s got. Some consider Satan to have originally been a seraphim, this would help to explain why he is a serpent in the garden. We know then that these created seraphim in heaven are magnificent and beautiful creatures, such as Satan was (possibly described in Ex. 28:13-15.) What Isaiah is looking at are creatures that are serpent like, hence the word, but not serpent as we understand them today, but serpent in a pre-fall sense, which is something we don’t completely understand. Also, the word denotes the idea of ‘burning ones’, b/c that is what they are. Hence the ‘fiery’ serpents, these seraphim are the ‘burning ones.’

    Why assume that people are hiding something from you in order to deceive you or prevent you from worshiping God rightly? Christian charity demands that the translators are at least as smart as you, and are motivated like you to do good. Humility demands the same. To assume they are creating a cover-up only shows the pride in your own heart, that you would assume such ill-will from your brothers. This place of judgment makes you just as prideful as you perceive them to be. An anti-intellectualism-ism can be just as soul damaging as an elitist intellectualism. It would seem that you are either close too, or already suffering from the former. I hope that I am wrong.

    I’m not sure if I want to deal with the other two or not, they are essentially the same. Thank you for your time Mr. Shammah.


  9. Bravo! I like Dragons also. Most cultures have dragons in their imagery and not all are the enemies of manking. I think there are all kinds of “mytholical” creatures in Heaven. How about the winged Lions on the Ark of the Covenant that have the faces of men? The imagery in Ezekiel and Revelation looks like a nature hike throught the set of a George Lucas movie. Come on folks get away from the safety of your pew and get into the adventure which is in the Kingdom of Heaven. By the way Shammah, I redid some of the detail in that Gabriel and Mary piece I send you a copy.

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